Jordan King Affirms Democratic Course Despite Islamic Gains

KING Hussein indicated this week that the process of democratization in Jordan is irreversible and pledged never to allow his country to be divided along religious lines. These statements follow a major victory last week for Islamic fundamentalists in the first general parliamentary elections in more than 22 years.

The success of the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers, who won 31 of the 80 parliamentary seats, has raised concerns here. Among them is the future of the country's westernized lifestyle, but more important, whether the election outcome could jeopardize Jordan's political liberalization drive by forcing a confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood - which calls for Islamic law - and Hussein, who has warned the group not to mix religion and politics.

However, as euphoria over the first vote in two decades calms, both parties appear eager to avoid confrontation.

``King Hussein knows very well that the brotherhood is committed to the interests of the country,'' says Abdul Munim Abu Zant, the most outspoken brotherhood leader.

In the 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood gained ``exclusive'' status for supporting the king against radical Arab states and internal leftist movements, while all political parties were banned.

``The Brotherhood's victory was largely due to the political vacuum as a result of the absence of other legal organized trends,'' a senior Jordanian official conceded.

But in an interview with the Monitor this week, Hussein implied that this era of exclusivity had ended. ``We have closed the past which allowed some to be active and deprived others of a similar [privilege],'' the king said. ``This is a new page where all trends will be allowed to present their ideas and views.''

Hussein's statement reflects his position that religious sectarianism rather than the left poses the most serious danger to Jordan and the Palestinian question.

Alarmed by the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Hussein takes seriously Israeli extremist threats to transform Jordan into a Palestinian homeland. Such claims will become possible, he says, if ``they [the fundamentalists] managed to divide the fabric of Jordanian society along religious lines.

``[It is] something I will never permit,'' the king said.

Over the last six months Hussein has been warning the Muslim Brotherhood against intruding into politics.

But many politicians believe such fears are exaggerated. They cite official figures showing only 10 percent of the 1.6 million Jordanians eligible to register for the election voted for fundamentalists. And of those who did vote, 25 percent polled for the brotherhood and its sympathizers.

``Moreover, the concerns regarding the ascendancy of an Islamic political trend apply to Muslims and Christians alike who are hoping that Jordan will continue its liberalization drive,'' says Jamal Shaer, a former Christian minister.

Hussein's firm position toward the Islamic fundamentalists is unlikely to lead to a dissolution of parliament - a right entitled him by the Jordanian Constitution. Instead, the king's counteroffensive seems to be to allow the formation of other political parties as a way of countering the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

A national charter allowing the formation of political parties was expected to be presented in the near future. But some politicians speculated that the document would exclude ideological parties.

``[The charter] will exclude nobody,'' asserted the king, explaining that adherence to Jordanian Constitution would be a prerequisite for any political activities.

The balance in the parliament includes Pan Arab nationalists, liberal reformists, traditionalists, and tribal leaders, all of whom are not expected to approve any drastic changes in Jordan.

Members of these groups contested the elections on an individual basis, and three representatives of the organized Marxist left won seats in the parliament for the first time since 1957.

Furthermore, Islamic leaders are not actively promoting restrictions on alcohol or women. ``Our priorities involve support of the Palestinian intifadah against the Israeli occupation and addressing Jordan's urgent economic crisis and promoting political freedoms,'' says Sheikh Abu Zant.

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